In the short time since Sen. Elizabeth Warren formed a presidential campaign exploratory committee on New Year’s Eve, the Democratic primary floodgates have opened. Although a year remains before the Iowa caucus, no fewer than eight Democrats have already tossed their hats in the ring for the nomination. Some contenders, such as Warren and Sen. Kamala Harris, are considered the big fish in the pond; others, such as Rep. John Delaney and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, are far less familiar. Other Democrats, such as former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Sherrod Brown and Cory Booker, are said to be seriously contemplating primary runs. Taken as a whole, the projected primary field is diverse in age, ethnicity, gender, background and position on the progressive side of the ideological spectrum.
Accounting for the many others who are expected to declare their intention to run in the coming months, a field of 20 or more Democratic candidates is likely. While some political commentators are sighing in anguish over the chaos and derision that they perceive to be inherent in such a crowded primary, I firmly believe that there is little reason to fear a pileup in the left lane. In many ways, the dynamics of a large field will result in a better general election candidate.
This early on in the election cycle — nay, this long before an excruciatingly long election cycle even begins — I am not of the mind that gatekeeping, or debating whether or not a particular candidate “should” run, is helpful or productive. Too many nail-biting Democrats on Twitter and in political opinion columns are currently complaining that the party lacks a leader, that too many people are thinking of running, that so-and-so is best and that all others should stand down. The bottom line is that any Democrat who wants to run should run — and most who hit the trail won’t make it to the first debate in all likelihood.
Generally, a primary field of this size is anyone’s game, which will force Democratic voters to approach the campaign with an open mind. It will not be helpful to survey the candidates as one might choose a romantic partner — to be swept off one’s feet by one favorite candidate, to quickly dismiss others as inadequate and to refuse support to the eventual front-runner. This strategy would maximize intraparty fractures and conflict just in time for the general election, when unity will be crucial.
From the candidates’ perspective, competition is a good thing and is revelatory. Candidates simply cannot reasonably run opposition campaigns to more than 20 competitors; as a result, they will have to define themselves in positive ways and prove why their platforms, records, temperaments and visions for the country make them better than the rest. Moreover, each candidate will bring along a certain standard of expertise on his or her signature issue, forcing others to do their homework in order to contribute in a credible way during debates. If every candidate is pressured to be as compelling as Elizabeth Warren on financial reform or Sherrod Brown on labor and unions, each one will emerge a little stronger.
In addition, competition in the field could help assuage some of the fears that Democrats, including myself, have voiced in recent months — namely, that Democrats will run a second-string candidate and assume he or she can squeak by in the Electoral College just as an antithesis to Trump. Every candidate in the Democratic primary will be clearly identified as progressive, and all of their voting records will be the same in the most important ways (yes on Obamacare, no on Trump’s tax cuts, no on weakening Dodd-Frank). As a result, primary candidates will be forced to make their case to voters in ways other than simply saying, “I’m a Democrat, and I’m not Donald Trump.” Democrats are often accused of not having a message, but the crowded primary will be an excellent opportunity for candidates to prove that they do have a message — jobs, health care, a habitable planet — and to put said message to work.
All of the aforementioned benefits are predicated on one critical assumption: Democrats of all stripes will rally around the party nominee with everything that we have for the general election. Of course, we will all have favorite candidates, and allegiances will change as the field winnows down. It will not be helpful, however, to stoke intraparty conflicts about ideological purity between candidates. Trump is such a threat to the rule of law, the sanctity of American democracy and standing of the country in the world that there is nothing more important than ensuring that he is a one-term president. Who cares if the nominee only fulfills 75 percent of your checklist? Ousting Trump from the White House should be far and away the number-one criterium on that list. Nothing else matters compared to that.